“I was taught to confront things you can’t avoid. Death is one of those things…looking at death throws us back into life with more vigour and energy. The fact that flowers don’t last forever makes them beautiful.” - Damien Hirst
From skulls to pumpkins to scenes shrouded in mystery, the macabre and the bizarre are themes that have been explored by artists for centuries. From the Victorian era’s obsession with death and Memento Mori, to the wider cultural obsession with our own morality, contemporary artists embrace these darker, thought-provoking themes in their art. As Halloween is nearly upon us, we take a look at artists tackling these spooky subjects.
Now more of a light-hearted opportunity for trick or treating and pumpkin carving, the festival of All Hallows Eve has traditionally been a day dedicated to remembering the dead and past Saints. As the years have passed, this annual celebration has developed an unmistakable collection of iconography that is echoed in the work of the following artists. From Lee Ellis’ sinister skulls, to Magnus Gjoen’s Gothic imagery to Yayoi Kusama’s playful pumpkins, each of these artists utilise key elements of Halloween in their art. We love the dark and mysterious atmosphere of this time of year, so why not embrace this in our art too?
Large Pumpkin Soft Sculpture Yellow, 2016 by Yayoi Kusama - £800
Memento Mori is a historical motif used by artists for centuries. This trope has roots as early as the philosophy of classical antiquity, medieaval funerary art and Christian imagery. Often taking the form of a skull or bones, but also being represented as coffins, hourglasses and extinguished candles, these motifs are representative of the fragility of human life. Memento Mori iconography was often found within a portrait or still life painting, as a constant reminder of the inevitability of death, with the phrase translating to ‘remember that you [have to] die’ from Latin. This became such a popular motif that an offshoot of still life called ‘Vanitas Painting’ emerged, which were paintings consisting of symbolic objects that remind the viewer of their own mortality, and the unimportance of other material goods in comparison. The likes of Magnus Gjoen, Damien Hirst and Lee Ellis use this historical skull imagery in their artwork as representation of the foreboding nature of death.
Whilst Kusama’s pumpkins are representative of the fun to be had over the Halloween period, the other artists in this viewing room use humour and ridicule to confront the power of death - a subject that continues to occur both in contemporary art and in the tradition of All Hallows Eve. Discover artworks that play with mystery, perception and intrigue in our viewing room.
Magnus Gjoen’s artwork treads a delicate line between the subjects of life and death, old and new, and the glamorous and macabre. Gjoen combines Renaissance iconography with skull imagery, distorted figures and floral motifs to create a completely unique aesthetic. The gothic themes in Gjoen’s artworks are dark and evocative, exploring the relationship between power and fragility. Vanitas art is an intriguing genre, which dates back to the Dutch Master painters of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Time and I Against Any Two by Magnus Gjoen - £200
Objects such as skulls, rotting fruit and melting candles are used in Gjoen’s art to represent the fragility and brevity of life. The artist sources imagery from museum archives and other fragments from the past to create an unmistakable dissonance within his work, using these references to explore the relationship between power and fragility.
Lee Ellis is a Bristol-based contemporary artist that embraces the macabre, using his talents to depict the angst and inner turmoil of his subjects. Ellis’ artworks draw an intense emotional reaction from the viewers of his artworks, with his strong linework and aggressive brush strokes emphasising the pain of his skulls and figures.
Mister Bone-Jangles by Lee Ellis - £55
His experimental process embraces a variety of mediums such as spray paint, acrylic and printing to enhance the animalistic energy of his art. From depictions of unsettling skulls to his twisted and writhing figures, Ellis succeeds in constantly pushing the boundaries of his art. We love how Ellis takes familiar pop culture icons like Spiderman and The Incredible Hulk and transforms them into tormented figures inspired by the work of Francis Bacon.
There's a Spider on my Bacon by Lee Ellis - £1,500
Haus of Lucy, formerly known as Lucy Bryant, creates witty artworks that play on contemporary culture. Appropriating classical imagery such as Eighteenth Century landscapes, Bryant leaves her own mark on these unassuming scenes through the form of Primark bags, Amazon trucks and Beats headphones.
Wireless - A3 by Haus of Lucy - £150
Alluding to current social, political and cultural events and iconography in her art, Bryant creates a discord that is both intriguing and unsettling. The unexpected anachronisms that deftly find their way into Bryant’s work results in artworks that are saturated in humour. We love Bryant’s disruption of the ordinary, juxtaposing the past and the present to create unnerving artworks.
Damien Hirst is a contemporary British artist who has forged a name for himself in the history books. Tackling broad subjects such as the relationships between art, beauty, science, life, and death, Hirst is unafraid to dive head first into deep and meaningful themes. The artist is unafraid to explore the uncertainties of the human experience in his art, where he places particular focus on the inevitability of death.
For The Love of God, 2009 by Damien Hirst - £7440
Hirst has said about his practice: “Art’s about life and it can’t really be about anything else … there isn’t anything else.” His vulnerability and curiosity with the human condition inevitably shines in his artwork, from his famous skulls to these iconic multicoloured spots.
The world famous Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama is celebrated for her psychedelic colours, repetitive dots and iconic pumpkin sculptures. Acknowledged as one of the most important living artists to come out of Japan, Kusama is the avant-garde voice of a generation.
Red Pumpkin Naoshima (Large) by Yayoi Kusama - £1,240
Kusama’s pumpkins are a particularly popular motif of Kusama’s. Taking the iconic shape associated with Halloween, the artist puts her own twist on them with her dots. When asked why she keeps returning to this familiar form, the artist said: “I love pumpkins because of their humorous form, warm feeling, and a human-like quality and form…I have enthusiasm as if I were a child.” We love how Kusama’s boundless joy for her pumpkins perfectly summarises the childlike joy to be found in Halloween celebrations.
To discover more art inspired by the spooky nature of Halloween, explore our specially-created Halloween Collection.
40 x 40 cm
Limited Edition of 100
What Comes Next Will be Marvellous
50 x 50cm
Limited Edition of 50
50 x 50 cm
Limited Edition of 80